As Downloads Keep Sliding, Streaming Is Coming to the DJ Booth

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Jamie Coe
                 

Services like Beatport and SoundCloud step up as the iTunes store is dismantled.

In 2012, deadmau5 almost single-handedly burst the EDM bubble when he said that all DJs do in concert is "press play" on an iTunes playlist. On June 3, seven years later, Apple announced that it was dismantling iTunes, thereby marginalizing its download store and signaling that DJs may soon need to prepare for a post-download world where, presumably, some will have to press play on services like SoundCloud and Beatport -- at least, that is, if the Wi-Fi works.

Most music fans take for granted the reliable internet connection necessary to access millions of songs on streaming services. But professional DJs can't risk a service hiccup in a club. "DJs kind of live in a bubble," says Dirtybird label manager Deron Delgado. "For the consumer side of it, streaming makes a lot of sense." DJs, though, "have to own the music so they can have files on their hard drive or in [DJ software] Rekordbox."

In May, online retailer Beatport -- which briefly launched its own streaming initiative before shutting it down in 2016 following the bankruptcy of its former owner, SFX -- also announced a subscription service, Beatport LINK, that lets subscribers temporarily store a number of downloaded tracks for offline streaming in a digital "locker." Unlike Spotify and Apple Music, users can access tracks saved for offline listening through third-party software.

"We're definitely on the brink of the next evolution in DJ'ing," says Beatport CEO Robb McDaniels. "The pros out there [in the DJ community] that are doing it as a living can't deal with buffering or internet service interruption" -- which is more of a risk for DJs than most consumers since the former generally use uncompressed music that needs far more bandwidth than MP3s.

Earlier this year, SoundCloud also embraced streaming to meet the needs of its estimated 53 million active monthly users, who skew younger. The Berlin-based company partnered with DJ performance software developers like Pioneer DJ, Native Instruments and Serato to give subscribers access to its 200 million tracks while in the DJ booth (though it's still online-only). "Our mission is to try and provide the global DJ community with the best set of tools and resources to help them grow their careers," says Jack Bridges, SoundCloud senior manager, label relations. "And DJ software integrations are really a means to do that."

As download revenue declines, on-demand streaming models like SoundCloud's are also more appealing for up-and-coming DJs who might not have Calvin Harris' revenue numbers to buy as many songs as they might want to play. According to the RIAA's 2018 Year-End Industry Revenue Report, digital download sales fell 26% year over year to $1.04 billion, with track downloads leading the way (even as prices remained stable at $1.23 in 2017 and 2018). "It's hard to say whether these smaller DJs will pay $1.99 for a Beatport download, which is only 10 tracks for $20, when for $20 a month they can have access to a full catalog," says Delgado.

For the vast majority of DJs -- those who play local clubs rather than large venues -- subscriptions are just more economically feasible than buying tracks. "I'm definitely spending $100 a month just on MP3s from Beatport, so if a subscription is half of that a month, I feel like I could play more songs and take more risks," says Evan Weiner, a DJ who also works as marketing director of Brooklyn venue Elsewhere. "As a DJ and a consumer, I'm not angry about the future of streaming."

Australian producer, DJ and label owner Nina Las Vegas (AKA Nina Agzarian) has a sanguine view of DJ'ing by streaming, even as she allows it's not necessarily for her. "If I play a festival set or one that is relatively planned ahead, I would less likely have everything streamable, because I work my sets and worship them and practice them," she tells Billboard. "The easier things get, the less effort I put in, and that's not the DJ I want to be." 

Agzarian agrees with Weiner that streaming through SoundCloud, like some brands of DJ performance software, would be a much more affordable option for many up-and-coming DJs; and that such a setup allows for more varied, spur-of-the-moment sets, like a "back-to-back via the cloud." "When I go to America, all the DJs before me play Traktor because that’s what they can afford and that’s how they practice, because not everyone can practice with CDJs and vinyl at home," she says. "So if people start DJing in the cloud, cool!" 

This article originally appeared in a different form in the June 14 issue of Billboard magazine.